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Hidden gem of Heidelberg – charming town off the N2

Text and pictures: Marion Whitehead. Article from the November 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.

Most motorists on the N2 zoom past the unpretentious town of Heidelberg in the Southern Cape. Some who stop are so charmed they stay forever.

Heidelberg was established as a church town on the banks of the lovely Duiwenhoks River in 1855.

The image of Heidelberg that sticks in my mind is not of the landmark Gothic-style church in the centre of town, glowing in the last rays of the day, although it is a pretty sight. Neither is it the green wheat and bright yellow canola fields surrounding this little agricultural town, which sits on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River below the purple Langeberg mountains.

The agricultural town of Heidelberg at the foot of the Langeberg mountains is clustered around the graceful Gothic-style Dutch Reformed Church

The picture that lingers is of a couple sitting on their stoep with a neighbour or visiting son, sipping tea and watching the setting sun colour the clouds. There’s no fence to hide them from the street, just open lawn and flowerbeds dotted with the roses that grow so well here. They’ve got the best view in town and are obviously masters of the art of stoep sitting.

The charming Blue House in Fourie Street used to be a girls boarding house. Quirky decor makes Aan de Kanal Coffee Shop a landmark in lower Fourie Street

This was when I tumbled onto the secret of why so many creative types have slipped into this spot on the western edge of the Garden Route; among the beautiful, historic buildings that dot the older streets, there’s a peace in which to mull and let one’s creativity flow.

“It’s a town where you can do your own thing. Us creative people don’t want to be in the city; we’re runaways and castaways,” says Pierre Oosthuizen of Fresh Frames picture-framing business. “This town draws certain people because it’s not pretentious. Property is still affordable – you can buy a decent house for less than a million rand – and it’s safe.”

Glen Napier's rare Comma truck is just one of the treasures at his antique shop. When Doornboom Opstal, Heidelberg's oldest house, was renovated, the townsfolk rallied to donate 300 rose bushes to beautify the garden. Tour guide Claire Jones has a fund of stories about those buried in the English Cemetery. Star Nation Gallery and Art Studio bursts with the creativity of local artists.Pierre puts the number of artists in Heidelberg at around 20. “But there are more like 50 if you include everyone who paints.” Many artists keep a low profile and the main clue to their existence in the little town is Star Nation Art Studio & Gallery in Van Riebeeck Street, run by the dynamic Louise Kluyts. With her bubbly personality and wild red hair, she’s certainly not flying under the radar, nor are her bold oil paintings inspired by the local landscapes. Her gallery is a focal point for creative townsfolk to show their work, and run classes and weekend workshops on subjects such as stained glass, painting, ceramics and metalwork.

“It’s the most interesting little town in South Africa. Everyone has their hobbies and different interests,” says Louise, adding that, each December, Star Nation hosts a large exhibition that includes the work of the students.

Inspired, a country decor shop just outside Heidelberg on the N2, is where Sally Pretorius and Pierre Roode sell their Soon range of ‘primitive’ furniture. The name is an acronym for Something Out Of Nothing, appropriate for the old wine cases that are the basis of their beautifully crafted tallboys and washstands.

Heidelberg was a compromise when this creative couple decided to move in together.

Pierre was fed up with being a price-taking fanner, and the city lights no longer attracted Sally. “But I couldn’t handle Pretoria where Sally lived, and she couldn’t handle the Karoo,” says Pierre. “Heidelberg was central – 40 kilometres from the sea, 30 kilometres from the mountains, and very pretty.” They bought a big Victorian fixer-upper – “an ex boarding house and brothel” – and, some blood, sweat and tears later, they have a beautiful home.

Pierre also restored the run-down farm buildings that are now their business premises. Inspire’s shop used to be the stables of Doornboom Farm – near the old manger is a hollow made by countless horses rubbing an itch – and the workshop was the old dairy.

“It’s safe here. I can go on my own to the beach at Witsand during the week and wander around taking photos,” Sally tells me over dinner at Delish, the newest eatery in town, where I meet Michael Amos, famous for his artisan breads and fondly known as ‘Mrs Mike’ because he’s seldom without his apron.

Artisan baker Michael Amos of DelishSally says his evening bread-making classes, where he teaches the art of ciabatta made with stone-ground flour in a wood-fired oven, are a great excuse for some foodie fun. “The secret is how you stretch it and put air in it,” confides Mike. “It was my dream to move to the country. I sold Michael’s, my restaurant in Rondebosch, to do so,” he says of his popular eatery in Cape Town.

The pride of his oven is his sourdough, ciabatta and 100 per cent rye loaves that are eagerly snapped up by Heidelbergers. As are his kudu and ostrich pies. “I expected most of my business to come from N2 motorists, but 80 per cent of it is local,” he says.

Next morning, André Jacobs of the Heidelberg info office tells me more about Heidelberg’s talent; soapie stars Christo Davids (as Errol) and Theodore Jantjies (Xander) of 7de Laan fame, and Maurice Paige who plays Calvin on Isidingo, all spent formative years here before making the big time on national television.

I pick up a booklet about the historic buildings of Heidelberg, established as a Dutch Reformed congregation in 1855 beside the Duiwenhoks River ford, and named for the Heidelberg Catechism. The main street is still so wide it can comfortably accommodate loaded grain trucks with enough space for cyclists not to feel they’re risking life and limb, and the little stone post office is a copy of the one in Heidelberg, Germany.

I meet tour guide Claire Jones for a walking tour and she tells me she was one of the people who used to drive past Heidelberg without a second glance. “It’s pure fluke I ended up here, but if you scratch deeper, there are gems,” she says. “It’s such a special place with a very mixed community, and a great place to bring up kids.”

The large Gothic-style Dutch Reformed Church replaced an older building when it became too small forthe growing congregation of Heidelberg. Boaz the Bouvier Beauty is captured by Fresh Frames's Pierre Oosthuizen, who frames most of the artworks produced by this talented community

The architectural stars of Heidelberg are undoubtedly the ‘new’ Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1913, with its soaring steeple a landmark in the centre of town, and diagonally opposite it the plainer St Barnabas Anglican Church, consecrated in 1860.

A memorial to those who died in the most southerly skirmish of the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 stands in Heidelberg's main roadThe most southerly skirmish during the Anglo-Boer War took place right between them in 1901, when Jan Theron’s commando rode over Gysmanshoek Pass and attacked the town. “But the British loyalists were ready and had defences set up around the church and hotel,” says Claire. “Peter Bellingan, a young Scot fighting with the commando, was killed in a hail of bullets and the Boers rode off. The British buried their dead secretly in an outbuilding so as not to spread alarm.” She points out a memorial, on the corner of the DRC grounds, to the men who died here.

Fourie Street, with all its historic homes, is the backbone of the route. There’s the charming blue Victorian house that was once a boarding house for schoolgirls, and at No. 21 the double-storey Brugsig was a refuge for women during the Anglo-Boer War and still has bullet holes in the front door.

Opposite is Doornboom Opstal, the 1728 Fourie family farmhouse on the land the church bought to establish the town. Caretaker Sonet Kleynhans lives nearby and will open up the classic T-shaped long house if you want to see inside the thick walls of sun-baked clay bricks. Check out the huge old hearth and family portraits, including one of Jopie Fourie, the Afrikaner rebel executed by firing squad without a blindfold in 1914. Sonet says it is believed his last words were, ‘You can shoot me because my heart is big enough for all your bullets’.

Historic houses cluster at the northern end of Fourie StreetWhen Doornboom was restored in 2008, the townsfolk rallied to support the project and donated 300 rose bushes for the garden.

“People here are very supportive,” says Sally who, even as a newcomer in town, received SMSes of encouragement from people she hadn’t even met, when she sat for months at her son’s bedside in a Pretoria hospital after he was involved in a serious car accident.

Glen Napier discovered Heidelberg after his parents moved here. A year ago he followed suit, moving his business, Newly Defined and African Pickers antiques and collectibles, into an old motor dealership. “It’s a great place to bring up a young family,” he says with a big smile. The roomy showroom is also ideal to display his eclectic treasure trove of restored collectables – as varied as the talented folk this little town attracts.

Where to Eat

 For lunch try the famous blue-cheese burger at Blue Crane Farm Stall two kilometres west of town on the N2. 028 722 2651

 Pop into Aan de Kanal’s coffee shop in Fourie Street for traditional dishes such as boboti and an assortment of home-made cakes and tarts. 028 722 1389

 For thin-based pizzas made with local stone-ground flour, get to Piatza Café before they close at 20:30.  028 722 1694.

 Spysjolyt is famous for its home bakes and pies, which are also ‘exported’ to Cape Town. 083 982 2331

 For supper and all-day treats, you can’t beat Delish, off the N2 at the Heidelberg turn-off. 028 722 1850

Where to Play

 Historic walking tours: collect a booklet from Tourist Info in Eksteen Street or call guide Claire Jones. 072 039 5351

• Doornboom Opstal tours with caretaker Sonet Kleynhans. 076 734 5178

• Star Nation Art Studio & Gallery 028 722 1080, 082 378 4126 website

• Inspired and Soon furniture 076 972 0701 or 082 507 2567 website

• Fresh Frames, Fresh Bags and Pierre Oosthuizen Products 082 647 2163

 African Pickers and Newly Defined antiques and collectables. 028 722 1104 website

•  Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve in the Langeberg mountains is great for hiking and birding. 028 722 2412 website

•  Renowned whale watching from Witsand beach 40 kilometres from Heidelberg.

• Take the scenic drive over Tradouw Pass through the majestic Langeberg to Barrydale and loop back over Gysmanshoek Pass (bumpy gravel) or Garcia Pass (tar).

Where to Sleep

• At the commercial end of historic Fourie Street, Aan de Kanal Country Lodge’s self-catering suites have kitchenettes and there’s a braai lapa. 028 722 1389, email, website

•  At the quiet end, Lemontree Cottage in the converted stables of a historic home has a single unit with a living room, full bathroom and bedroom opening onto a patio. 083 447 4095 email

• Nearby, stylish Fleur Bleue B&B has a delightful French touch and a long stoep overlooking a peaceful garden. 028 722 2942, email

Useful Contacts

•  Heidelberg Tourist Information 028 722 1068 email, website

Property Pointers

•  The old magistrate’s building is a restored historic beauty with seven bedrooms and a grand staircase and is on the market for R3.7 million.

•  Most sales, however, are three-bedroom houses in the R400 000 to R500 000 range. “You can get a really good house for about R500 000 and just fix it up a bit,” says Nikki Kleynhans of Pam Golding Properties, adding that most of her buyers come from Gauteng and Cape Town.

•  Her company recently sold a four-hectare smallholding on the edge of town with a house and dam for R900 000. “it’s very safe here,” she adds.

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